The names of craft

7 May

Beagle, Cassini–Huygens, Chang’e, Curiosity, Gaia, Galileo, GRAIL, Juno, Mariner, MAVEN, MESSENGER, Nozomi, Opportunity, OSIRIS-REx, Phoenix, Pioneer, Magellan, Voyager….

We build spacecraft and give them names. The name is the hope, the wish, the magical thinking of scientists and engineers with romantic hearts under their pocket protectors. They give each of their rovers, orbiters, and explorers a name,

– as if the name is somehow identical with the thing’s true nature.
– as if to invoke the sacred language that refers to the things themselves.
– as if, like the colors of Gargantua’s livery (1), meaning is bestowed in the a posteriori features of a thing as if they were a priori.

The names have at once the terse terminology of science and the grandiloquence of marketing devices: government agencies and their corporate arms, longing for not just for the public’s approval, but for the public’s love.

The crafts’ creators give them names, then rocket them into the sky. Most will never return. The whole point is that they never return.

“The modern tale… is a product of the Voyages of Discovery. It’s an expression of irredeemable exile. The exile’s new world seems unnatural, more like fiction than reality. Faced with the impossibility of return, he or she is faced with failing to resemble himself or herself and in the wake of such loss, must resort to self-creation. But to reassemble an identity out of the fragments and discontinuities of exile… is easier said than done.” (2)

Some of the names are grand mythologies wrestled from awkward acronyms:

MESSENGERMErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging
MAVENMars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN
OSIRIS-Rex: The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith EXplorer
GaiaGlobal Astrometric Interferometer for Astrophysics

Some names are meant to be descriptors of characteristics the machines’ creators hope they will embody, but in that naming, the crafts fates are set. The Mariners were the first to navigate our way to the planets, peering into the cloud-hell of Venus, destroying in one swooping fly-by the fantasy of canals on Mars, soaring past the fire and ice of Mercury. Two of the Mariners were destroyed as they set sail, another crashed against the electromagnetic waves of solar plasma and micro-icebergs of space. The Mariners that remain now drift in the heavens, derelicts at sea.

Pioneer was the first probe to achieve escape velocity from our solar system, but Voyager was the first to actually break the boundaries of the heliosphere. Like so many that forged the way into the frontier, Pioneer’s communication was lost as it traversed beyond the known into the unknown.

Some of our machines’ names are outright, unabashedly mythological, in keeping with the planets they explore.

Messenger had a great deal of information to deliver back to us about the swift courier of the gods, at least before it ran out of gas and crashed on the surface of Mercury. On that day, I shed a tear. This craft had no breath, but it had a soul. In the faceless tweets of the twenty-first century, machines become living things.

Space observatory Gaia is set to map one billion astronomical objects—stars, exo-planets, quasars, asteroids and comets, but she is named for the primordial Greek deity of the ground beneath our feet. Gaia is also the mother of the heavenly gods from her union with Uranus, the sky. The name of the craft was retained for its magic even after its acronym no longer referred to the methodology used onboard.

Juno is due to arrive at its destination in 2016, and like the wife of Jupiter, she will be able to peer through the veil of clouds that hides Jupiter’s mischief and see his true nature. Does he have a rocky core beneath the deep winds that radioactively embrace his encircling concubines Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto?

The moon-explorers GRAIL are named for the cup from which Christ drank at the last supper, and which Joseph of Arimathea used to catch Christ’s blood as he hung on the cross. Some believe the Holy Grail is an actual goblet, a relic alleged to have been guarded, sought after, and fought over for centuries by knight-priests. Others believe that the Holy Grail was never a cup, but the human womb that nurtured Jesus’ child. This is the better evocation of the GRAIL orbiters that mapped the interior of the moon, mother of menses, prime mover of the tides. Their individual names, both humbler and more primordial, are Ebb and Flow.

Some of our craft, or the worlds they travel to, are given names by little girls: Curiosity, Spirit, Opportunity, Pluto, named in turn by Clara, Sofi, and Venetia. Oh, so very patriotic, the reason for “Spirit” and “Opportunity” winning a naming contest. Spirit got mired in a sand dune. Opportunity continues to take advantage of its destination after ten years, although it showing the signs of robotic Alzheimer’s.

We name our craft after famous explorers. The robotic Magellan was launched from a space shuttle to circumnavigate the solar system. Sails trimmed, it plunged into the Venusian clouds and burned. Carpe atmospherum.

We name our craft in loyalty and tribute after the astronomers who showed us the planetary giants were not the knobs of the crystalline spheres circling the Earth, but worlds themselves, fellow children of the sun, with encircling children of their own. Cassini, Huygens, GalileoGalileo died protecting the moons its namesake was martyred for four centuries earlier when it was sent plunging into the chaotic ammonia clouds of Jupiter.

Indeed, we should be wary of the potential for irony in the names we bestow on our machines. Calling your craft Phoenix cannot raise it from the ashes of its radio silence on the polar icecap of Mars. Nozomi, Japanese for “Wish” or “Hope,” was unable to achieve Martian orbit and drifted on. The Beagle 2, successor to HMS Beagle, bounded down upon Mars, but, ears drooped, failed to return the call of his masters. The lunar probe Chang’e was named for the Chinese moon goddess. But was that name not also chosen for what it evoked to the English-speaking world? When Chang’e’s pet Jade Rabbit hopped upon the moon, it didn’t ramble across its surface. Yutu froze, now unchanging, in the deep cold of the half-month lunar night.

There is instinct in the rhetorical urge to anthropomorphize our machines of exploration, to give them wit and longings, indeed, to give them faces. Curiosity tilts its head at ancient Martian streambeds like Number Five (3), alive!

1.Francois Rabelais, Gargantua
2. J.S. Breukelaar, American Monster
3. Short Curcuit, 1986

Photo credit: Don Davis

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